On Friday, February 13th, 1970, a debut album by a British rock band was released in Britain, an album that would prove to be one of monumental significance and influence. “Black Sabbath” by the band of the same name took psychedelic rock and heavy blues and turned it into something darker and more sinister. The opening track – also called “Black Sabbath” – began with a distant church bell ringing solemnly in a thunderstorm. Then a massive tri-tone guitar riff played on distorted electric guitar and bass and accompanied by a crash of drums with each chord introduces the album and the world to what later some would call the first heavy metal album and the first doom metal album. The lyrics on side one mention Satan, Lucifer, and a wizard, and the dark figure on the album cover affirms the occult nature of the songs inside.
When the “Satanic” metal bands of the 1980’s began achieving their share of fame and initiated the so-called genre of Black Metal, there was likely not one among them who wouldn’t have cited Black Sabbath’s debut as a major inspiration. But Black Sabbath was not a satanic band. In the song “Black Sabbath”, even though the lyrics mention a “big black shape with eyes of fire” and “Satan’s coming round the bend” the protagonist of the story is clearly frightened out of his wits and cries out, “No, no! Please, God help me”. In the song “N.I.B.” – mistakenly thought to stand for “Nativity in Black” – the lyrics speak from Lucifer’s view point of Old Nick falling in love .
The dark imagery of the band’s lyrics and heavy, ominous music continued on subsequent albums; however, the sinister lyrics referred to the evils of the world (“Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses” – War Pigs) and did not necessarily reflect any band member’s desire to be a practicing Satanist. Conversely, one can often hear Ozzy Osbourne singing hippy lyrics about a world of love and even encouraging a belief in God in the song “After Forever (including the elegy)” from their third album “Master of Reality” – “Would you be afraid of what your friends might say if you believe in God above / They should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to Love”. This song was later covered by a Christian thrash metal band, Deliverance in the early 90’. Even the giant crosses that were used as part of their stage sets were never inverted. Dark and referencing the occult at times in their lyrics and album art, the band did not involve themselves in any satanic worship practices. When deliberate satanic imagery was used in the album artwork, it was without prior consent from the band members.
The rise of Black Metal in the 1980’s saw bands taking the whole business of Satan more seriously. The British metal band, Venom, actually used circumscribed pentagrams, goats’ heads, and other symbols associated with Satanism in their album art and even called an album and song of theirs, “Black Metal”. A young Swedish musician, Thomas Forsberg (stage name, Quorthon) started the band, Bathory (named after a Hungarian countess who was rumoured to have been a killer of young women and bathed in their blood) and with their first four albums set the blueprint for Scandinavian black metal. In the U.S., Possessed also were one of the forerunners of the black metal movement. The movement caught on in Norway with some band members being associated with murder and church burning.
However, while many modern bands look to Black Sabbath as a mentor of dark music and songs about the occult, there were actually other bands prior to Black Sabbath who were not nearly as heavy in sound but quite serious about the occult in their lyrical content. Britain’s Iron Maiden, a short lived act that bears no relation to the world-famous heavy metal band, though not actually involved in the occult, wrote songs about sacrificial rituals and evil. Their only single was “God of Darkness” released early in 1970. Also from Britain, Black Widow released a few albums between 1969 and 1973 that also dealt with the occult. Their first two albums were “Return to the Sabbath” (1969) and “Sacrifice” (1970).
But when it comes to early use of satanic imagery, America’s Coven goes unmatched. Their debut in 1969, entitled “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls” includes a photo of band members giving the sign of the horns, the first time this appeared in popular culture (usually the sign’s first use is credited to the late Ronnie James Dio during his days with Black Sabbath but Coven had already done it ten years earlier). There is also an inverted cross and the band standing around a nude young woman on an altar prepared for sacrifice. Song titles include “Black Sabbath” (and a band member named Os Osbourne, too!), “Dignitaries of Hell”, and “Choke Thirst Die”, plus a song about a witch. Unlike many bands then and later on who used the occult and Satanism for entertainment only, the members of Coven were quite serious about their beliefs and were well-read in the subject. The final track on their debut album is over 13 minutes of an initiation ritual of a neophyte. The music was not really heavy and still steeped in psychedelic rock with a jazz tinge. But when it came to knowing about devil worship, these guys were as close to real deal as one could get.
After the end of bands like Coven and Black Widow in the mid-seventies, one would imagine that occult rock had gone away until the revival in the 80’s. Not so. Searching for proto-metal bands on YouTube brings up a varied selection of underground and little known heavy metal bands with dark, satanic imagery on their covers and in their lyrics. Check out the videos below to see that Venom, Bathory, Possessed, Slayer, and the many other bands that came after were nothing new but building on and expanding upon what, to various extents, had already long been established.
Zior – Entrance of the Devil, 1971
Bedemon – Nightime Killers, 1974
Seompi – Almost in a Hole, 1970
Pentagram – Be Forewarned
Wicked Lady – Psychotic Overkill, 1972
Iron Claw – Skullcrusher, 1970
Pinnacle – The Ripper, 1974
Macabre – Be Forwarned (later to become Pentagram)
Necromandus – Nightjar, 1972
Salem Mass – Witch Burning, 1971
Bulbous Creation – Satan, 1970